Labour leads the new school consensus

The latest Tory ideas for raising educational standards come from the left, argues Judith Judd
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AFTER nearly a decade of bitter fighting between right and left, a remarkable consensus about raising school standards is emerging. Last week Tony Blair, the Labour leader, promised not to abolish grammar schools, toned down his opposition to opted-out schools and tried to outbid the Conservatives in promoting parent power. He also praised the idea of assessing children as they enter primary schools and said schools should set targets for academic progress. Bad teachers should go, he said, and the old left had let down working class children by not being tough on failing schools.

All this sounds very Tory and will be taken by some as evidence that Mr Blair is not really on the left at all. But the truth is that the Tories' latest ideas on schools owe as much to the left as Labour owes to the right. The Tories deserve credit for spotting that parents were losing confidence in schools. But the best ideas for raising standards came from the very people that ministers blamed for the problems: local council education officers and university professors of education.

The Tory recipe for raising standards was to set tests at 7, 11, 14 and 16 and publish league tables of which schools did best. In vain was it pointed out to ministers that league tables took no account of a school's intake. Selective schools and those with middle-class catchment areas would nearly always come top. Schools in deprived areas would nearly always come bottom and publication of the results would only damage their morale.

Two years ago this month, two prominent members of the "education establishment" that ministers so despise tried to think of a better way of raising standards. At Highbury Hall in Birmingham, Professor Tim Brighouse, the city's chief education officer, and Professor Ted Wragg, professor of education at Exeter University, spent a day listening to parents and teachers. In the evening, the two men sat down for a six-hour brain-storming session.

They decided that Birmingham schools should be asked to set targets which would improve on their previous best and that the city should assess all its five-year-olds so that their progress could be measured as they passed through school. Under these proposals, even schools with very poor intakes might shine while those in the leafy suburbs might be exposed as mediocrities.

Now look what has happened. John Redwood, the Secretary of State for Wales and a Cabinet right-winger, has said that all schools in Wales should set their own improvement targets. The Prime Minister has made a similar proposal. And Eric Forth, the schools minister, has told a conference that the Government is considering assessing five-year-olds.

We are no doubt meant to believe that these ideas came to ministers in their baths. Any suggestion to the contrary is resented. "This was Mr Redwood's initiative after taking advice from officials and inspectors. Nothing at all to do with Birmingham," the Welsh Office said indignantly last week. The denial is hardly surprising. Three years ago, Labour-controlled Birmingham ranked high in the list of authorities the Conservatives most hated. John Patten, the former Secretary of State for Education, described it as the worst education authority in Britain. He said Prof Brighouse was a "nutter" and was successfully sued for libel. When Prof Wragg was proposed by Whitehall officials for quango membership, Kenneth Baker, then secretary of state for education, scrawled "red Wragg to a bull" by his name.

Prof Brighouse believes that the latest developments mark the beginning of a consensus in education policy. Consensus about schools is not new. It was James Callaghan, a Labour prime minister, who began the debate about standards with his Ruskin Speech in 1976. And it was Shirley Williams, a Labour Secretary of State for Education, who tried to find out how schools were failing in the Great Debate. Earlier Margaret Thatcher acquiesced in the conventional wisdom of both parties, by closing hundreds of grammar schools in the early Seventies. Even Sir Keith (later Lord) Joseph, who was an education secretary in the Eighties, agreed to introduce the GCSE in response to the demands of teachers and the education establishment.

Kenneth Baker began a new period of confrontation. Mr Baker not only introduced the biggest schools shake-up for half a century in 1988, he also made no effort to disguise his lack of faith in the teaching profession. He insisted on an elaborate and bureaucratic testing system because he did not trust teachers to assess pupils. He laid down in law minute details about when children should learn long division and how many metres they should be able to swim because he thought schools would wriggle out of the national curriculum unless they were tied up in lots of red tape.

Mr Baker's successors took a similar view. Kenneth Clarke ensured that right-wingers were given places on education quangos so that progressive teaching notions would be suppressed. He established a system under which schools would be inspected every four years. Schools declared to be failing would be taken over by hit squads of experts with powers to sack the staff.

Ministers were right in their belief that standards, if not exactly falling, were not high enough for the modern world. Some school leavers were barely able to read and write. But the Tories set about changing things in the wrong way.

Standards could not be raised without the enthusiastic help of teachers who were alienated by the Government's rhetoric and style and by its failure to consult the profession. There was too much stick and not enough carrot in the new inspections; some schools were left too demoralised to remedy their failings.

Belatedly, the Government realised that it had made mistakes and Gillian Shephard was appointed Secretary of State for Education to undo the damage. She says nice things to teachers. She has distanced herself from the right-wing think tanks. She is discussing less heavy-handed inspections and she hasn't made the mistake of saying that money doesn't matter. She is looking at how school intakes can be taken into account in league tables.

Labour, meantime, realised that, in the past, it had been too complacent about standards, that, too often, it had seemed to be speaking up for teachers, not for worried parents and employers. As Mr Blair said on Friday, "For some on the left, to talk of pressure on schools, teachers and pupils is to sell the pass. For me this typifies the reasons why the left has been losing general elections for the last 16 years." His tone, however, is different from that of the Conservatives. The Prime Minister and Mr Redwood are still telling schools what to do. Mr Blair says he will combine pressure with support. In Birmingham, for example, schools that volunteer for target-setting are promised council funds if they improve their performance.

The Conservatives can take the credit for diagnosing schools' ills and understanding the need to take action. But, when it comes to providing the cure, the left is making all the running.